Donington Park’s redevelopment plans will be heard by Leicestershire District Council tomorrow.
Circuit owner Simon Gillett is confident his proposals will be supported by the council and one councillor has been quoted in favour of the proposals. Is it time to stop the cynicism about Donington’s plans?
A mountain to climb
I was as sceptical as anyone else when the FIA revealed during last year’s British Grand Prix weekend that the race would move to Donington Park in 2010.
Its owners need to raise money to bring the track up to modern standards (it last held an F1 race in 1993) and pay Bernie Ecclestone’s hosting fees. Unlike most Grands Prix the British round receives no funding from the government – and its chances of getting became even slimmer when Britain committed to hosting the 2012 Olympics for a ten-figure sum, which the government now admits it can ill afford.
Gillett also faces serious logistical challenges: getting the spectators in through Donington’s narrow access roads, and reaching compromises with nearby East Midlands Airport on traffic and the ability of F1 teams to use their transmitters.
On top of all that, should Donington fail to get its track sorted on time Bernie Ecclestone has said there is no alternative and he will not take F1 back to Silverstone in 2010. A similar scenario played out when Brands Hatch courted the British Grand Prix a few years ago. Ecclestone says Britain’s status as a historic F1 venue will not spare it, nor will the popularity of Lewis Hamilton:
Even if Lewis is world champion, we will simply say we will get on with the calendar and that England won’t be included.
A man with vision
Many of the journalists who have met Gillett have been impressed by his vision and imaginative solutions to Donington’s problems. Nigel Roebuck wrote:
Anyone who attended the one-off European Grand Prix at the circuit in 1993 will need no reminding of Donington’s perennial traffic problems. The race, run on Easter Sunday and in foul weather, attracted only a small crowd, yet it took for ever to get in and out of the place. MotoGP fans will tell you the same story to this day, even though so many are on bikes rather than in cars.
How, then, to cope with a crowd venturing to the only Formula 1 race to be held in this country? ‘Park and ride’, that’s how. Cars, Gillett said, are not going to be welcomed to the track, and the plan is to have three large sites, well away from Donington, in which spectators will park, then travel on to the track by mass transit means. By this means, of course, traditional car parking areas at the circuit can be freed up for other purposes, such as larger-than-usual camping sites.
Gillett’s ‘park and ride’ plan has been met with ridicule from some but having been to big events in Britain I think it’s a sensible solution. I’ve used such systems at the British and Italian Grands Prix in recent years and they work fine. I don’t think Gillett’s plans to extend their use are unrealistic.
But the thorny question remains of how the whole thing is going to be paid for. James Allen wrote:
The bit I was sceptical about was the financing of the whole thing using a debenture scheme. I mean, can you imagine trying to find companies and individuals in this economic climate, willing to give you £18k for a debenture and then commit to another £7k a year? It was a good business model in the bull market and worked at Wembley and to a lesser extent Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium before the credit crunch came.
But the critical point, according to Gillett, is that the risk on the scheme doesn’t lie with him, it lies with his debenture partners IMG, the sports marketing firm and Goldman Sachs, the investment bank. He says that they committed to the programme before the credit crunch came, so he will get his money anyway whether they sell 10 debentures or 10,000. He gets the up-front money, they get the annual fee. If that is the case, then he certainly got his timing right and this event could well come off. And given that he also claims to have negotiated very good terms with Bernie for the five years, in other words he’s got the race on the cheap, you can see why he was looking quite pleased with himself at the Forum.
This raises two interesting points: first, if the money really is already in place, and the institutions he’s procured from aren’t going anywhere, then the whole project looks much more promising. It’s a big ‘if’, though.
And the second point is this: has Gillett got a favourable deal because of Ecclestone’s desire to get Silverstone out of the picture?
D-Day for Donginton
The outcome of tomorrow’s planning meeting is crucial for Donington. Gillett is convinced a positive decision is a foregone conclusion, saying recently: “From a minute after the decision this Thursday, we plan to be out there with our shovels.”
There’s been mixed signals from the councils involved, however. The director of community services at Derbyshire district council praised the “substantial economic opportunities” offered by the plan. But another councillor was less complimentary about other aspects of the plan, claiming Donington’s desire to restrict traffic at East Midlands Airport was “completely and utterly bonkers“.
Tomorrow’s planning hearing is the acid test for Gillett’s ambitions. Failure to get approval could kill the project – and with it the immediate future of the British Grand Prix. There might not be enough time to get a new application submitted and approved and get all the construction work done in time for the race in 2010. But rejecting a plan that promises to bring a major injection of funding into the area would be an unpopular move for the council.
I get the feeling that people are warming to the idea that Donington could work. At the time of writing, only 22% of people have voted for the prediction that the British Grand Prix will be axed for 2010 in yesterday’s poll.
Do you think the 2010 British Grand Prix at Donington will happen? Is Bernie Ecclestone trying to get the race away from Silverstone – or off the calendar entirely in favour of another remote location with a government backer paying top rates? Have your say in the comments.
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